Hello. Let’s talk about productivity as a writer. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this, and I think ratcheting up your productivity, cranking out the words, writing a lot and publishing a lot, is a key strategy to adopt in order to achieve success as a professional writer.
I don’t think it matters how you define that success. Success may mean a certain annual income, may mean some sort of literary prize, may mean critical acclaim, or any number of other things. But in any case, and in almost every case – there are of course rare exceptions which only serve to prove the rule – the productivity of a writer is a common indicator of her success.
And this rule applies not only to writers but to artists of any kind. Persistent, determined, disciplined productivity opens up the floodgates of creativity in a way which is unparalleled by the rather poor technique of sitting about waiting for inspiration.
This idea is not new, nor is it unique to me, but I really think it’s true. I think its truth is demonstrated in the history of all the arts; be that in music, painting and sculpture, narration, dance, choreography, or in any other form of artistic endeavor. Famous painters, writers, and composers whose works have been enjoyed most widely and whose work has endured over time are typically those who have been highly productive.
Take for example Claude Monet, the great impressionist painter who produced at least 2,500 individual works during his lifetime; or Amadeus Mozart who composed 600 pieces of music; or Shakespeare with his 37 plays and 154 sonnets; or Charles Dickens who aside from his 15 best known novels, wrote hundreds of short stories, essays and other works; Enid Blyton wrote 800 books for children and they’re all still in print; Isaac Asimov in SF and Georges Simenon in Mystery published close to 500 books each. The list could go on with thousands of examples. And none of these writers sacrificed quality for the sake of quantity.
I don’t believe it’s mere coincidence these great artists achieved the success they did. Nor do I believe their successes can be ascribed to metaphysical or supernatural fortunes. They lived in very different time periods, they worked in different media, their motives were extraordinarily diverse, their expectations, personalities, and experience were all very, very different from one another. They had perhaps only one thing in common: they were prolific. They produced a heck of a lot of work. Most of it may be forgotten now, but had they not been so productive they may never have produced the masterworks which we still remember and treasure today.
And it is not only the case for the great artists of days gone by. Contemporary creators who have achieved financial success, critical acclaim, and won a place in the popular imagination, have been no less prolific than their historic forebears. Stephen King is an obvious example with 70 books to his name and hundreds of short stories; Neil Gaiman has 38 books in print as I write and no doubt more in the pipeline; Lindsay Buroker has published 40 books since 2005.
So what are the advantages, both creatively, financially, and in any other way, of being prolific? What are the advantages of producing a lot of work and doing it consistently? Well, it seems to me there are six clear advantages. You may be able to think of more. If you can, then please do mention them in the comments so that we can all benefit from your insight.
First I’ll list these six advantages of intense productivity, and then we’ll look at each one in a little more detail. So here they are:
- The only way to learn to write, is to write. The more you write and the more consistently you practice your craft, the better writer you will become.
- Literally millions of new books flood the marketplace every year. The more quality work you are able to write and publish, the greater will be your visibility, and therefore “discoverability,” in a very crowded marketplace.
- Most writers are rather more short of time than they are of ideas. Developing the discipline of productivity and becoming a prolific writer enables you to follow up on more of those ideas.
- Shooting more arrows increases your chances of hitting the target.
- Keep and feed a hungry fan-base.
- Generate more data for analysis – what works? what doesn’t work?
So let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
1. It’s certainly possible to follow a course of study in creative writing these days, either by subscribing to one of the many online or distance learning courses, or by attending one of the several degree level programs offered by modern universities. However, while some of the latter may have a certain amount of value, the former are largely overrated, overpriced and best avoided.
There are whole shelves in the bookstores these days dedicated to any number of “how to write…” books. In fact, there’s a booming new industry based around books for writers. Many of them are written by people who have never written anything else! The current explosion of this sort of stuff reminds me rather of the explosion of mystical mumbo-jumbo spawned by the New Age on the back of the repeal of the witch laws. Repealing the witch laws was a good thing, of course. And everybody likes to make a buck. But, well, you know.
All of that notwithstanding, as every writer comes to know sooner or later, there is really only one way to learn to write. And that is to write. Why are people so surprised by this? In any other form of endeavor you’d be expected to work very hard and to work a great deal over a long period of time in order to achieve any sort of respectable mastery. Sportspeople, scientists, designers, industrialists, business people, and just about everyone else expects a long and hard apprenticeship. Why do so few writers fail to recognize that “to write” is a verb? To put it in baby-simple language, it’s a “doing word.” You have to do it.
As with any other discipline, art, science or craft, there is a reasonable expectation that the more you do it, the more you practice your discipline, and the more consistently you do so, the more you will learn and the better you will become. It’s as simple as that. You simply cannot go from one place to another without taking every step of the path between. That in itself is a sufficient argument in favor of working towards ratcheting up your productivity.
2. As everybody and her aunt wants to be a writer these days and as, with the rise of Kindle, Kobo, Nook, print on demand, and other self-publishing services, it has never been easier for anyone to put work into the marketplace, that marketplace is now huge. There was a time when the reputation enjoyed by the self-published community was a deservedly low one. But everything has changed over the last ten years. Independent publishing has matured, focused, and refined itself, and become almost indistinguishable from the mainstream to the general reader.
There are more books being published, purchased, and read than ever before. Very few people discover books by means of literary reviews or newspaper press releases. The discoverability of a book depends on two main factors. The first of these is age-old, time-honored, and still true. It’s word-of-mouth recommendation. It’s hard to engineer, and almost impossible to manufacture. All you can do is write a good book and trust that as it finds the people who love it, and that they will share it with others like themselves. It’s a slow, organic process. But it gives the best results. Any author with a long-term strategy should prefer a slow but consistent seller to a chart-topping bestseller which everybody will have forgotten the following year.
Starting the word-of-mouth process relies on your books being visible. People have to be able to find them. Let’s imagine you and I were selling our books from a stand in the marketplace in town, and we were sharing that stand. If you had only one or two books on display and I had hundreds across 10 different series, whose books would be most visible?
It’s a no-brainer. Increased productivity increases your visibility, which in turn increases your discoverability, and assuming you’ve covered all the bases (a good book, a nice cover, an enticing blurb) that will necessarily lead to higher sales. The word on Indie Street is that sales figures for good books sold through the latest retail media experience spikes in sales after book 3, book 5 and book 10 in a series.
3. Not all the advantages of high productivity are strictly financial or sales related. Most writers I know, and the many more I’ve heard of, are never short of ideas for new books to write. Indeed, most of us keep boxes or files, notebooks and scraps of paper here and there filled with any number of ideas we are desperate to get around to developing into finished works.
If we don’t develop our writing muscle, our stamina, and our discipline, most of those glorious, glittering ideas will never see the light of day. That’s a painful thought! The disciplined, productive writer has more fun – way more fun – because she gets to play with more toys in storyland.
4. If you’re a lazy archer and all you do is shoot a single arrow you may, you just may, hit the bull’s-eye on the target. But it doesn’t take a brain the size of planet to figure out that shooting more arrows increases the odds of hitting the target in the first place, and that one of those arrows might strike the bull’s-eye. Of course, it’s also true that a well-trained and talented archer may have a better chance at success with her single arrow than an incompetent fool with a quiver full. But neither of these two are really taking advantage of the possibilities. The person most likely to win that archery competition is the third guy who spent a lot of time and effort learning her skills and turns up with a lot of arrows!
Productivity – that is writing more and publishing or submitting more – not only makes you a better writer, easier for readers to find, and having more fun, but it also dramatically increases your chances of enjoying a runaway success. There’s no guarantee, but why not up your odds if all it involves is doing more and more of what you love?
5. I’ve known several authors, all traditionally published and therefore constrained by the pre-historically slow publishing cycle of the traditional houses wherein typically one book per year is considered high velocity, whose first book has been well received by an excited readership only to find that three years later when the second book comes out the readership has moved on and forgotten about the first book, leaving the author to start all over again from scratch.
One of the most beautiful and enticing opportunities in independent publishing is the direct and intimate relationship the author can enjoy with the people who love her books most. Most genre readers are extremely loyal to authors they love. They’re hungry for more of your work. The author- reader relationship, as with any relationship, needs to be nurtured in an environment of mutual giving and receiving, and frequent, active communication.
It may take many years to develop a fan-base. You should never forget that those fans are the people paying your bills. They are the people enabling you to continue to make things up and write them down for a living. I reckon you owe them a heck of a lot more than the cover price.
So another clear advantage of high productivity is that you are able to keep that relationship healthy, and your fans happy, and your future business secure. Being good to your fans by giving them plenty to read, and doing it often, makes your business more robust and resilient in the long term. It doesn’t matter what happens at the publishing houses, which retail outlets rise or fall, or in what new format books are most popularly read. Whatever changes occur “out there” you will always be able to sell your books to your fans. Because they’re no longer out there; you’ve invited them all in and you’re keeping the party swinging.
6. I’ll admit that this one may not be everyone’s bag, but I love data. Maybe it’s the scientist in me, but I much prefer to make decisions in the light of probable outcomes drawn from data analysis than on a mere hunch or worse, nothing but vague hope.
It’s another great advantage of independent publishing – the data on sales and demographics and so on is all available to you, not hidden away and jealously guarded by others. I’d recommend any author to do her best to gather as much data as possible about every aspect of her books and their fate. It’s perhaps for another post further down the line, but armed with a lot of data over time, you’ll be able to make informed and reasonable decisions about how to strike the balance between what you want to write next and what’s most likely to sell.
The more productive you are, the more books you’ll publish, the more data you’ll have, and the more informed your publishing decisions can become over time.
So there you have it. Productivity has everything in its favor.
And while I only have three books released to date (all published in 2016) I am practicing what I preach. I have two longer novels and 17 novellas in progress and all scheduled for release by the end of this year, 2017. And that’s on top of my “day job” as a commercial copywriter.
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